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Is Iraq a Lost Cause?

The New York Times carries a very grim story about Iraq on the front page today, complete with statistics on roadside bombings and blind quotes from senior Defense Department officials and military affairs experts. From start to finish the story conjures up the idea that Iraq is an absolute lost cause.

Allow me to juxtapose the doom and gloom assessment of the New York Times with a different perspective. Yesterday, I spoke on the phone with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson in Baghdad who is currently leading a Congressional delegation visit to Iraq. I asked him directly whether the recent shift of coalition troops to Baghdad had produced any noticeable effect on security in the capital. Secretary Nicholson responded that it was his understanding that incidents in Baghdad have decreased over the last two weeks. The delegation met with General Casey and President Talabani yesterday morning, and Nicholson characterized the current mood as "guardedly optimistic."

I asked Nicholson about the ongoing level of sectarian violence. Nicholson said that it continues to be a serious problem, but that he was impressed by the level of maturity and experience displayed by senior leaders from all three communities (Shia, Sunni, and Kurd) with whom they'd met. I also asked specifically why Muqtada al-Sadr is allowed to continue operating and whether there is any plan to deal with him directly. Nicholson answered that Sadr "must be dealt with" and that while he "doesn't cooperate well with Americans" and has a large following (including a minister in the cabinet) that is problematic, Sadr is, at least to some degree, participating in the government. In other words, Sadr has to continue to be managed and brought under control through the political process.

I asked the Secretary to address the growing perception that our Iraq policy is failing and/or evolving into an "unwinnable" situation. Nicholson said he wished Americans could visit Baghdad and see things for themselves, because he felt they would "get a much different feeling" about the situation than what they're getting from the mass media at home. Nicholson added that his impression was that the feelings were more positive today than they were when he visited a year ago. I interrupted to ask if his delegation had traveled outside the Green Zone, and he responded that they had been outside the Green Zone several times during their trip and were headed to other parts of Iraq today to assess things and visit with troops.

Two final notes on the interview. I asked about the morale of our troops. Secretary Nicholson called it "outstanding" and "extraordinary." He told a quick story about a West Point lieutenant he had just visited in the main hospital in Baghdad who had been injured by an IED, resulting in his 3rd Purple Heart. He said the soldier told him how passionately he still feels about the work his unit continues to do in Iraq.

I asked whether there was any discussion about changing troop levels in the future, either up or down. Nicholson said the subject had been brought up by members of the delegation and said the answer is "it depends" but added that "it sounds like it's possible we could have troop draw downs" in the near future because coalition forces are wrapping up their training of the Iraqi Army, which is performing very well and continuing to assume more direct responsibility for territory and operations. Nicholson added, however, that the Iraqi police force, which is a critical component to establishing consistent, long-term local security, hasn't come together as quickly and much more work needs to be done bringing them up to the same level of competency as the Iraqi Army.

For more detail on current operations on the ground in Baghdad, go read Major General William Caldwell's briefing yesterday. Caldwell says they are "cautiously optimistic" about progress so far and reports that they "have a positive trend happening" in neighborhoods like Dura, Shula and Amariyah:

Progress thus far in the three areas that we're operating in: Nine hundred tons of trash have been removed from those three neighborhoods already, with more being removed each day. Kilometer after kilometer of barriers emplaced, building what some may call the semblance of a gated community, affording them greater security with ingress and egress routes established and manned by Iraqi security forces with coalition forces in support to ensure that the people have a safe neighborhood to live in.

More than 7,000 homes and businesses have been cleared.

Nineteen mosques have been cleared. They have detained 47 persons. Nearly 300 weapons have been seized. Eight weapon caches have been found. More than 340 weapons that Iraqi citizens are authorized to have in their homes have been properly registered and remain there with them for their personal security.

Over 700 local citizens are currently employed, with more being employed each day. The economic piece, so vital to what we are all attempting to achieve here in the Baghdad area, is starting to take place. We see new stores in Dura opening each day. Residents tell us that within Dura itself just recently, two banks have opened that have not been opened for over two years, and Iraqi security forces are down there helping provide the security necessary so that they can function in a safe environment.

The district advisory council chairman is pushing members to take responsibility and to help clean up their neighborhoods. The district advisory council is working to motivate the local population to work with both the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces operating there.

Humanitarian assistance packages have been passed to the neighborhood advisory councils for them to decide where the greatest need is within their neighborhood, and to provide that to their citizens. Medical assistance teams have been formed and will start operating in these areas later this week.

National police and coalition force commanders are engaging with the population, both in person and by radio, to explain what's going on for the operation so that people understand what is attempting to be accomplished and how they will make the difference about what they do.

Taken together, the impressions from General Caldwell and Secretary Nicholson give a much different picture than the one provided in the New York Times today - and on most days, for that matter. If even you discount Nicholson's comments for administration spin, or assume that Caldwell is putting the best possible face on the security operations in Baghdad, you're still left to confront the fact that some progress is being made. Instead of hearing about it, however, we get the relentless negativity of the media, epitomized by the Times story today. The situation in Iraq is serious, no doubt about it. But it is far from hopeless. U.S. troops, and Iraqi forces and leaders haven't given up hope that Iraq can be saved. We shouldn't either.